October 1, 2008

More Than Talk Needed on Water

ENVIRONMENT Minister Trevor Mallard's sudden tough talking over water has more to do with the pending election than a real Government desire to tackle a pressing problem.

Mr Mallard wants the worst of the polluting farmers to be jailed. He believes farmers and others who foul rivers, streams and lakes treat fines under the Resource Management Act as just another business expense.

He criticises local authorities for over-allocating groundwater, lecturing them that they have to be smarter and telling them "we need guarantees that it is being allocated to provide the highest value".

He is right, but talk solves nothing. The water issue is a national issue and should be sorted out at a national level.

So far, Mr Mallard and his colleagues have shown little inclination to do that. The Proposed National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management has been rightly criticised as avoiding the hard issues by buck-passing them to regional and local councils in the name of "empowering innovation and local solutions". Even conservationists who welcomed it as a step forward saw it as something which required a lot of tightening up if it was to be effective.

It is full of woolly aspirations, such as ensuring that "appropriate" freshwater resources reach or exceed a swimmable standard -- prompting Dominion Post columnist Simon Upton to wonder what the inappropriate ones are that we can just forget about -- and a far-off target date of 2035.

At the same time, the water resource is under increasing pressure. In some areas the water has been over-allocated.

Water is looming large as a defining issue of the 21st century, with predictions that by 2100 one billion to three billion people worldwide will be suffering from water scarcity and the prospect of water wars, both between nations and within states and different communities as they fight for the resource.

That is unlikely in pluvially blessed New Zealand, but there are already tensions, and worries over quality.

Last month, a Greater Wellington regional council audit of 146 dairy farms in the region found 30 per cent were not playing by the rules when it came to protecting waterways from their cows' effluent.

That is unacceptable. Dairying is vital to the country's economy, but that does not mean that anything goes. Many farmers do the right thing, such as fencing rivers and streams to keep cows away and the water clean, but too many others do not.

As dairying has intensified, the quality of water has declined appallingly.

Mr Mallard may wish to put the blame for that on local government, but their response that the Resource Management Act is not up to the job points to where the blame should truly lie.

What is needed is an agreed national strategy for dealing with water. That is not something that can be achieved overnight, but nor is it something that has only now become apparent.

The Government could have been working on a strategy for the past nine years. That would have been more useful than tough talking on the eve of an election.

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